Thursday, January 15, 2015

I Hear a Rhapsody

Long Beach,
ca. 1941 

This elegant, scallop-edged menu comes from the fabled Sky Room in the old Hilton Hotel in Long Beach, California. Based on a variety of factors, I guessed that it was from the early 1940s, but pinpointing a more exact date proved to be difficult. Trying to determine the year of an undated menu is never easy, and I was about to give up on this one, when the word “rhapsody” came into focus. This was the clue that I had been looking for—this menu probably originated in 1941. 

The pop song “I Hear a Rhapsody” was at the top of “Your Hit Parade” in 1941. In fact, it was a top-ten hit that year for three separate artists—Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Dorsey and Dinah Shore. With lyrics like “My darling, hold me tight and whisper to me,” this slow dreamy ballad (as it was then performed) provided the perfect subtext for a romantic dining room overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The beverage list called “rhythm ripples” features a cacophony of swing-era concoctions. 

Prices are usually not much help in determining the age of a menu, even when it comes to making a rough approximation. They vary by class and location, and tend to fluctuate over time, as do tax rates. However, the 3% state tax shown at the bottom of the bill of fare narrows the time frame to an 8-year period; the California sales tax increased to 3% in 1935 and was then lowered back to 2.5 % in 1943. 

The name of the hotel and its location are shown on the back cover. Opened as the Breakers Hotel in 1926, this luxury resort was purchased by Conrad Hilton in 1938, making it the eighth hotel in his chain. After acquiring the 14-story oceanfront property, Hilton converted the penthouse into the Sky Room. Frequented by movie stars like Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, and Cary Grant, this restaurant was one of the most popular dining spots in Southern California during its heyday.1 As a customer later recalled, “It was a dating place, like the Brown Derby and Cocoanut Grove. It was the place to go.”2 

Considering the tax rate and hotel ownership, this menu was in service sometime between 1938 and 1943. The musical reference indicates that it probably dates to 1941, although the design could have been in use for another year or so. Still, it’s only a guess, for you never know when a new piece of evidence will surface. 

1. “Up in the Sky Room: The 1930s restaurant with the 360-degree view is back on the scene serving an ultra-retro menu,” Los Angeles Times, 3 March 1998. 
2. “Like Old Times: Seniors Find Elegance, Bit of the Past at Hotel.” Los Angeles Times, 27 October 1991. 


Alison Pearlman said...

I love to hear the tale of your sleuthing. The thought process is itself rewarding. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

We used to dine in The Sky Room in the eighties, atop the, then, breakers Hotel.

Jan Whitaker said...

That Sky Room special sandwich is an interesting one. Never saw guacamole spelled with an H before.